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Bishops (Consecration of Women)

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England; and for connected purposes.

This is a straightforward one-clause Bill, allowing women to become bishops in the Church of England. I am introducing it today because of what happened in General Synod last November. During the lead-up to that vote, 42 out of the 44 diocesan synods voted for women bishops, and at the November meeting of General Synod, the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy voted in favour and it was only because the House of Laity did not reach the two-thirds threshold that it narrowly failed to pass.

In 1992, the Church voted to ordain women into the priesthood. This happened 150 years after the start of the deaconess movement and after many decades of debate on women’s ordination in the Church. It was expected that, in time, we would see women becoming bishops. In fact, in 2006 the Synod started to look at admitting women to the episcopate. The theological argument had been won.

In 1992, however, provision was also made for those who could not accept the ordination of women—and the so-called “flying bishops” were created. In an excellent booklet “Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England”, the author Maggi Dawn described examples of the treatment she received from some within the Church who were unwilling or unable to accept her as a woman priest. On her first day at college, for example, she received a leaflet, saying “A woman’s place is not at the altar but in the kitchen; put on an apron and get back to where you belong.” She also hoped in the booklet that when the final piece of the jigsaw was completed with women becoming bishops, this would finally confirm the Church’s full acceptance of women’s ministry once and for all.

Twenty years on from those first women being ordained, we have some highly experienced women who should be considered for appointment as bishops. We now need to break that stained-glass ceiling. It is the next logical step, and it is needed to give credibility to the Church on the role of women’s ministry and to ensure that we have the very best individuals leading our church.

Last week, on 8 March, international women’s day, I had a meeting with women clergy in Hull, East Yorkshire, which had been arranged by the Bishop of Hull. What an amazing group of ordained women that was—intelligent, compassionate, witty, warm and very, very wise. They are a huge asset to the Church. They told me of their roles: working with young people on tough inner-city estates, working in small rural communities, visiting the terminally ill in their own homes, and providing support for young families in their parishes.

Many of those women talked of their feelings about the Synod’s decision, which they believed undermined their work in the Church, in their communities and in their role as priests. Tellingly, they mentioned the number of members of the general public who had spoken to them after the decision, saying how shocked and sorry they were, and, most important, saying that people thought the Church was out of step with the modern world, and looked ridiculous and eccentric.

We know that many of the people whom a Church of England priest will meet each day are not regular churchgoers, but ordinary members of the public who look to the Church to be there at important times in their lives—to baptise babies, to marry people, and to comfort the bereaved. Ordinary people want to see the Church of England in action through the women and men who serve their local communities. They certainly do not understand why it has taken such a backward decision, given that women constitute a third of the clergy and half the membership of the Church. Those women have kept the Church going in communities all over the country, and their voluntary work was the “big society” decades before the term was invented.

The Church has caused an enormous amount of hurt to women who have a calling to be ordained and serve the Church, but who have found that, as a result of the decision of the General Synod, their calling has been sidelined. We are asked to believe, explicitly or implicitly, that women are not quite as good as men. That would be news to Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie and hundreds of other women who have changed history for the better.

Some people, even those who claim to support the idea of women bishops, say that this is a matter solely for the Church, and that it must be left to sort itself out. The Church, however, is our national established Church, headed by our Head of State, Queen Elizabeth, the Defender of the Faith and the Supreme Governor: a woman of some note. We have 26 bishops sitting in the other place in recognition of the Church of England’s important role in lawmaking in this country. We have prayers every day in this place, led by a Church of England chaplain, and we are fortunate to have an excellent woman in that role.

We have an Ecclesiastical Committee in Parliament, whose job is to examine draft Measures presented to it by the Legislative Committee of the General Synod. It reports to Parliament on whether it considers the Measures to be expedient and to be supported, and it will generally ask members of the Synod to assist it in its deliberations. In some circumstances, a conference of the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committee may be convened. So Parliament has a big role to play in the Church of England, and the Church has a big role in Parliament. I certainly do not seek to enable Parliament to intervene in Church affairs lightly, but matters of discrimination are very serious, and we must speak up.

As Parliamentarians, we should be particularly concerned about the fact that, with any reform of the House of Lords now several years away and given the vote of the General Synod last November, we are entrenching sex discrimination in our Parliament by reserving 26 places in the House of Lords for men only. The Lords is the only part of Parliament where women are not allowed to take their place. I think that that is wholly wrong, and that we must make it clear that such discrimination is no longer acceptable in our Parliament. Many in the Christian faith see waiting as a good thing—and, my goodness, we waited an enormous amount of time to get women priests—but waiting is not good if it just leads to repeated deferrals, and it is not good in terms of the lost years before a final decision is made.

Agreeing to allow women bishops in the Church of England is very much about valuing women priests. It is also about respecting the equality laws and norms that we have established in this country. I am shocked to learn that men and women properly ordained by women bishops in other provinces of the Anglican communion are not recognised here. That has to be wrong as well. It is often said that women should not ask or demand, but should just “play nicely”. However, I think it absolutely right for us to become angry about injustice, and about the incoherent muddle that we have now. The Church’s document “Women in the episcopate: a new way forward” lacks a sense of urgency for change. The two sides in the current “conversations” are further apart than ever. It appears that opponents of women bishops will never compromise. The rest of society has moved on, and the Church now just looks very odd as a result of having taken this decision. A great deal of attention is often paid to those opposed to women bishops, but we know that many men and women have already left the Church because of the treatment of women. Our established Church risks going down the path to becoming a sect—a movement becoming a monument.

It has become clear that the Church needs to act much more quickly to sort out the problem, and I believe Parliament must be very clear about its view in order to assist the Church. In the words of Elvis Presley, we now need

“A little less conversation, a little more action”.

Those of us in this House who wish to see this change cannot pass by on the other side. We need to value the work that thousands of women do in the Church, and recognise their potential in terms of the work they wish to do.

I rise with some trepidation to speak on this subject, first because I am not sure it is any of my business as I am not a member of the Church of England, but I do think it is only fair that somebody—without necessarily forcing a vote or being controversial—just mentions one or two points that are important for this House. Personally, I am completely agnostic on this issue, and I think I should be, because it is not for me to—

Order. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about not necessarily forcing a Division, but in order to comply with the procedures that apply to ten-minute rule motions, if he wishes to speak it is necessary for him to make it clear that he is opposing the Bill.

I oppose the Bill for the following reasons. I am completely agnostic on this issue. The Church of England is not my Church and I think it is for the Church of England to decide on it. That is important. In previous centuries when there were matters of controversy within the Church of England, this House of Commons was very closely involved. Indeed, in the 1920s there were great debates about the nature of the Prayer Book. The Church of England wanted to move forward in a liberal direction and to allow alternative versions of the Bible to be read in their churches. There were debates in this House, and the House was more reactionary on the issue and opposed the reform. After those fierce debates, it was decided to move forward and in effect to give the Church of England independence. That is why from the 1920s we created the current modern governance system in the Church of England whereby although it is in theory an established Church—something I strongly approve of, because it is important that we give an impression that we are still a Christian country— it should also be independent of Parliament in terms of doctrine and structure.

I believe that is the modern, progressive and right thing to do. I do not think it is right that Members of Parliament, who are politicians, should decide how the Church of England runs its own affairs, whether in terms of the shape of the Prayer Book, who can become priests, or whether it can have women priests or women bishops. It is not for us, as politicians, to make that choice.

There was a further advance. As you will know, Mr Speaker, until quite recently Prime Ministers had a very wide degree of latitude in the appointment of bishops. The last Labour Prime Minister withdrew from that process altogether, however, and there is now a very careful procedure in the Church of England, with senior people in the Church deciding who will be bishops and names then going to the Queen. Effectively, therefore, the Church of England appoints its own bishops. That is entirely right. The Prime Minister is in no shape involved.

For all those reasons, I think it would be extraordinarily dangerous, and a retrograde step, if Parliament were now to get involved, however strongly we feel about this issue, and even though everybody realises that there is enormous interest in it and many people believe it is absolutely right that women should become bishops. I ask the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) to accept, however, that many people also believe that the Church of England should be independent.

There is another reason that we must bear in mind, which the hon. Lady mentioned when she said, “Surely when matters of discrimination are involved, Parliament should get involved.” That is a dangerous state of affairs. Have we not been assured all through the debates about same-sex marriage that the Church of England was absolutely secure and nobody could take it to court for discrimination because all sorts of checks and balances were being put in place to protect it? Many people feel passionately about same-sex marriage. They believe it is entirely wrong that the Church of England should refuse to conduct weddings for same-sex couples, and they are perfectly entitled to that view. They believe that to be discrimination on the part of the Church of England, but Parliament has decided that in that matter the Church of England should be entirely independent. That is an entirely right point of view, so this Bill would embark on a dangerous course of action.

I understand from conversations I have had, particularly those with our Second Church Estates Commissioner, that progress is being made on this subject, even though strong beliefs are held in the House of Laity. Careful discussions are being held. The people who oppose this measure may not be right, but they are honourable people. They have sincere religious beliefs that should surely be discussed in their own Church and not in Parliament. They believe—I am not commenting on whether this is right or wrong—that the Church of England is the catholic church; although it is an established Church and an Anglican Church, it is a catholic church. It is based on the traditions of the Catholic Church that the apostles were all men. I am not going to get involved in all these arguments, but these people have strong beliefs about that. I understand that progress is being made and some compromise will be worked out whereby people who feel sincerely that their religious principles are threatened will have some sort of process to ensure that their bishops are of a traditional kind—men, not women—and so on. That is the discussion taking place at the moment. Let us be calm, cool and collected about this. Let us recognise that the Church of England will move at its own pace and let us not interfere, as politicians, in how the Church of England is run.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Diana Johnson, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Barbara Keeley, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Andrew Gwynne, Helen Goodman, Barry Gardiner, Mr David Winnick, Mr Frank Field, Chris Bryant, Mrs Sharon Hodgson and Lyn Brown present the Bill.

Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May 2013 and to be printed (Bill 148).